The Fabulous Thunderbirds sound really good on the first listen, merely good on the second, and continue declining from there. Eventually, they stop at being good toe-tapping, head-nodding background music, which, ultimately, is where they belong.
This album collects the best from their ’70s and ’80s beginnings, when they released one album for the independent Takoma label and three for Chrysalis. There’s a distinct, catchy groove to almost every song and even the two requisite live, previously unreleased songs don’t suck (It’s nowhere near definitive, but it’s still interesting to hear the Thunderbirds’ version of “I Can’t Quit You Baby”). Even on the slow songs like “She’s Tuff”, there’s still enough rhythm to bob and weave to.
And give them credit for never going overboard on instrumentation or jamming. Though little brother Stevie would scale greater heights, older brother Jimmie Vaughn here shows more consistent (and welcome) restraint. Considering how sharp they are as a band, it’s no mean feat that they play with such ego-free taste. Song after song is tight and focused, even deceptively simple, until one realizes that there aren’t many bands who can both lay down a tight groove this consistently and who have enough will power to not unleash at least one lengthy, killer, preening solo.
Given all of that, though, the Thunderbirds never shake the soul the way they could obviously rock a club.
Without implying that they have no soul, it’s at least safe to say that they aren’t good at expressing soul. They are too good a band, too lean, mean, and dirty sounding, for them to be dismissed as simply being formalists repeating chord progressions they could have learned as easily at Berklee (which, by the way, they didn’t; they really came up playing clubs, bars, and blues festivals). When they each sit down with their respective stacks of old blues records, I can imagine the band members all hearing beyond the notes and shivering or laughing or crying as appropriate. But if they do hear beyond the notes, they don’t know how to conjure that magic for themselves.
Take what they do with this chorus, from “One’s Too Many”: “One’s too many and a hundred ain’t enough.” With just a little more imagination, it could easily have been turned on its head and become the comic predicament of an overly successful lothario with even more women than he can juggle. Even if one assumes that the Thunderbirds, as blues formalists, are playing music only so that they can play good blues music, such a theoretical comic dilemma wouldn’t have been out of place in a tradition that gave the world hoochie coochie men, back door men, and king bees.
Instead, the Thunderbirds never take the chorus beyond the standard do-wrong woman blues lament, describing a temptress so fantastically heartbreaking (and disloyal) that one of her’s too many and — well, you know.
It’s a failure of imagination. They play blues and boogie with real fire, but that’s all they do. Like a lot of white blues revivalists before them, they go through the motions correctly (besides rockin’ harmonica work, Kim Wilson is even a better singer than most white blues singers), but they don’t know what to do with them. They are disappointing only when one hears them and imagines what could have been. Or when one reaches over and puts on a genuine old blues record, the kind the Thunderbirds studied so thoroughly.
The Fabulous Thunderbirds are certainly good enough at houserocking to make their listeners sit up and pay attention, but, once that attention is grabbed, there’s nothing in their music that rewards such concentration. Musically, they’re a pretty great band but, before they can be pretty great artists, they need to say something great about something besides music.